Control your writing inspiration with hidden thinking

I had an idea for a story the other day. Came in like a thunderbolt, fully formed.

It's a self-portrait, in a deco hubcab. No really...

Seeing oneself distorted in a dream? It’s a self-portrait, in a deco hubcab. No really…

After a while I figured it wouldn’t quite work that way, but it was a start. And that begs a question. Where did the idea come from? I wasn’t thinking about writing a story, or even idly contemplating plot ideas – the last little while I’ve been fully occupied with non-fiction projects.

But that’s how the best ideas usually arrive. Isaac Newton, for instance, was resting under a hedge one day when a new mathematical principle suddenly occurred to him. He called it ‘fluxions’, though today we know it as calculus (and Gottfried Liebniz, who’d had exactly the same idea, was very annoyed).

The reality is that our minds are always hard at work behind the scenes. It’s a more complex process than usually allowed, and I figure a fair number of ideas come to nothing – we forget them, or they don’t emerge other than in dreams. They’re random. Like the idea that hit me. Yet we CAN control it consciously. Instead of letting inspiration ‘float in’ randomly, try this. It’s VERY important to do this with pen and paper. What you’re thinking may not be able to be represented in words at this stage. That’s fine. Draw a picture, a diagram – whatever best works for you to express yourself.

1. Write down the end point. Starting with the end point is the sharpest way to focus direction. It has to be an emotional outcome for you, and for your reader. But don’t try to figure out the journey there…yet.
2. Write down any ideas, thoughts, concepts you already have. Snapshots of scenes? Absolutely. It doesn’t have to be a specific project.
3. Work on these ideas a bit – refine them, see if they organise into patterns. Write them down again.
4. Take a fresh sheet of paper and copy the notes you’ve made, clean,  and manually copy the latest version. This manual copying is VERY important.
5. Now stick the clean copy in a drawer. And forget about it.
6. Go and do something totally different. Fishing, for instance.

What this does is set up relationships between ideas in your mind. The act of writing (or drawing) by hand and manually copying is vital because it involves so many different activities – reading, motor skills, memory, and thinking about the content. The aim is to get ideas moving & mixing ‘behind the scenes’. You might need to re-visit that piece of paper in a couple of weeks, re-read it – and maybe something will ‘click’. Or you could get an idea that mixes with what you’ve written – something totally left-field. That’s good too.

Does this work for you? Do you have a method of your own for triggering inspiration?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond

Click to buy print edition from Fishpond

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

 

How to win with writing’s digital revolution

There’s no question that the digital revolution has hit writing.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them).

Publishers are in a spin as traditional print-publishing – with its marketing and distribution model – falls away in the face of e-books and print on demand. A lot’s been driven by economic downturn. As discretionary spending falls away, people cut luxuries. But digital’s cheap. E-readers easily justify their cost.

To me the issue tells us a lot about how we think. It would be easy to  declare the death of print books. We’re conditioned to think that way as a result of Victorian-age progressivism, which framed our mind-set 200 years ago and hasn’t much shifted. You know the idea – the old replaces the new because it’s inevitable. The new out-competes, it’s natural, etc etc. Personally I blame Herbert Spencer, though realistically he was as much symptom as cause, back in the 1850s. We’ve been further conditioned by the way  ‘new models’ are sold on ‘superiority’ – actually a device to maintain sales, invented by car makers nearly a century ago when innovations became incremental. It’s so much a part of the commercial world that we don’t question it now. Of course the new is superior. Get with the programme!

The fact is that even biology doesn’t work that way, still less human social constructs, which is what we’re talking about when trying to predict the take-up of new technologies that’ll affect our lifestyles and habits. And yet we get puzzled when the future doesn’t happen as we imagine. What went wrong? Maybe it’s still coming. Er – er -

When trying to sort out the problem, we don’t ask the right questions – investigation usually pivots on why the original assumption that X will automatically replace Y didn’t happen. In fact, we have to ask questions based on different assumptions – such as ‘how has the new been received by society?’ We are looking at an interface, don’t forget, between capability and people. And people don’t behave in the shallow, automatic way imagined by nineteenth century observers who were wrestling to understand unprecedented social change.

Let me put it this way. Remember going out to the cinema? Killed in the 1950s by TV. Remember cash? Stone dead in the face of plastic cards.

I took this just before the premier of the Hobbit movie in 2012.

TV killed going out to the movies stone dead…didn’t it? This is the Embassy in Wellington, dressed for the premier of the first Hobbit movie in 2012.

Yeah, you get the picture. Plastic cards killed cheques; and certainly in New Zealand, usage of both cards AND cash have been climbing. If one was replacing the other, we’d expect cash to fall as cards rose. It isn’t. And less than 50 km from where I live, some guy named James Cameron has just arrived to stay, looking to spend several billion on – wait for it – movies that people will go to the cinema to see.

In all cases the new has taken its place alongside the old – which, itself, has adapted and changed. In many ways the new tech acts to improve the penetration of the whole medium into society. And that’s true of the publishing revolution. E-books have replaced ‘airport paperbacks’. But it isn’t either-or. It’s  ‘together’, as recent studies show. This one, for instance.  Or this one.

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Conceptually, we’re looking at complementary channels of communication; and we need to develop a mind-set that says ‘publishing’ means ‘publishing by any medium’. I can envisage buyers wanting to enjoy print but still buy an e-edition to have convenience on the move. Or an e-edition might offer additional content.

Publishers and authors alike need to be innovative, nimble, and open to change.

Curiously, I’ve got an example right now. Even a year or two ago, I’d supposed that large-scale books, such as my Illustrated History of New Zealand, might not be amenable to e-treatment. But they are. It’s out in e-format as well as print. Which I think is tres cool.

Welcome to the future.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Essential writing skills: three steps to capturing your readers

Want to know how to capture your readers? Writing’s all about emotion – about the author transferring their own emotions to the page, and perhaps creating new emotions in the reader. It can be exhausting. As Hemingway once said, you sit down at the typewriter and bleed.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The funny thing is, it’s true of non-fiction as well as fiction. Non-fiction also takes readers on an emotional journey – at basic level, the satisfaction of having information. But more usually non-fiction involves an argument, a pathway – and it is here that the emotion emerges. As Charles Darwin discovered, way back when.

Actually doing it, of course, is the trick:

1. Capture. The first task is to engage the reader at that emotional level. This is done by hook-lines and promises – the promise of that emotional journey and satisfaction. This doesn’t mean writing advertising slogans, but it does mean calling to the reader at a level other than that of the literal content. Readers are captured not by that literal content, but by the promise of what that content will do for them – how they will feel when reading it.

2. Hold. Next step – deliver on that promise. Keep the reader’s interest. One way to do that is to make small promises of emotional return along the way.

3. Punch. It’s not enough to carry the reader on an emotional journey – it has to be memorable. And the way to deal with that is to deliver a punch. This can be a multiple punch – giving the reader a series of little hitsies through the work, before finally delivering the KO at the end. It can be sharp – think of the way short story writers put a twist into the last sentence. Or it can be paced to suit the work. Think of the last chapter in Hemingway’s Farewell To Arms.

Ultimately the question writers have to ask, as they finish each sentence, is ‘what does this deliver to the reader? How will it make the reader feel?’

Where – in short – is the emotional journey?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Essential writing skills: harsh sentences for authors

I posted the other week on the importance of getting the rhythm right when writing sentences. And on the incompetence of my high school English teacher, but that’s another matter.

Party time in Napier's main 'art deco' precinct, February 2014.

Rhythm’s important to writing – as important as music. Jazz, for instance (this being a jazz type picture).

Getting the rhythm right when you write is part of the essential framework of writing – it lends interest. You can draw the reader, sometimes, by rhythm alone. It applies, of course, to every part of writing – words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs and so on.

The other part of making sentences work is in the content, which is largely a matter of structure. In strict grammatical terms a sentence is a single idea, but it can often be broken up into clauses and sub-clauses.

In non-fiction, particularly – but also, sometimes, fiction – I often discover very long sentences, sometimes embodying more than one idea. They run on (this is a technical term). The reason is that the author hasn’t properly organised their thoughts. It gets egregious when the subject and predicative (‘what’ and ‘what happens’) parts are divided by long qualifying clauses. This can really obstruct meaning. ‘The queen, while sitting at dinner and feeling extremely hungry, but whose crown was extremely heavy and had fallen over her nose, told the king to pass the salt.’ Ouch.

The trick is to make sure the subject (what the sentence is about) and the predicative (what happens to the subject) are adjacent.  Sometimes a long sentence is better written as two or three short ones. In both fiction and non-fiction, it’s also useful to organise the ideas in each sentence – to get the order so the sentence leads the reader on a journey.

All this may sound like Writing 101, but it’s amazing how easily writers can get carried into their work. Familiarity breeds contempt – quickly. Yes, writers have to write for themselves first and foremost – but the reader has to be thought about too. One way to test that is to put the work in a metaphorical drawer for a couple of weeks and then re-read it. Does it hold your interest? If it doesn’t, then it probably won’t capture readers either.

The biggest challenge when writing – and one of the causes of long convoluted sentences – is the fact that we think in simultaneous concepts, but writing is linear – a single idea thread. The knack for writers when assembling sentences – and, for that matter, any writing – is to understand the issue and be able to disentangle that simultaneity.

It’s a question, in short, of understanding how people think.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Essential writing skills: the hidden key to writing

I’ve been posting for a few weeks now on the challenges facing authors. By far the biggest single challenge is the invisible one. The way we think.

Close-up of the former T&G Building (1936).

Imagine writing as a building. We visualise the outside – the finished result – but the design inside demands a LOT of work.

The problem is that we all think in simultaneous ideas – everything all at once, in effect. We think we’re being clear, as if material is written down in our minds – but it’s easy enough to show that it isn’t. How? Try writing the idea down.

If it was clear, like we perceive a conversation, you’d be able to blurt it out as fast as you could type, finished and complete. Sometimes – just sometimes – this happens. But not often.

The more usual process is one of iterations. First there’s the blank page, because you don’t know where to start. Then you get some phrases and sentences, but this one seems to work better there, or maybe there. And how does this fit in? And – and –

You get the picture. Even if you think you’re got a linear thread of ideas, the practical first expression of them reveals you don’t. That’s normal. It’s because we don’t think in written English. Some people don’t think in language at all – the ideas float in as shapes and patterns. But even the people who’re limited to words usually don’t have a written sequence in their minds.

What we are actually thinking of is the result of the writing – the emotional response, the intent and the aims of the material. It’s often expressed, mentally, in terms of phrases, words and ideas.  But not in the order it needs to be. Nor is it complete, though we often have the illusion of it being complete because our mind fills the blanks.

And that’s entirely normal. It’s how humans think.

You’ll guess from this that I’ve put a lot of thought into figuring out how humans think, in order to write better – and you’d be right.

If we understand this, we discover the key to writing – to writing fast, to writing well. And it begins, as I’ve trunked about relentlessly in this blog, with planning. Planning down to the last detail, if necessary – though often that isn’t necessary.

To plan effectively, though, you need to understand how that melange of ideas, phrases, notions and concepts gets honed, teased, combed and otherwise bashed into shape when being written down. How do we go from the one point to the other?

It’s not easy – but if you can master it, you’ll have mastered what’s needed to write swiftly, effectively and with quality.

More next week.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Shameless self promotion:

Available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Kobo http://store.kobobooks.com/en-US/ebook/bateman-illustrated-history-of-new-zealand

Buy the print edition: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

Essential writing skills: giving your sentences that rhythm and twist

Welcome to the second post in a series exploring some of the mechanics of writing.

Deco. Jazz. Hemingway, They all go together.

Deco. Jazz. Hemingway, They all go together.

Writing is one of those fields where everybody thinks they can do it –not because it’s easy, but because they don’t know enough about it to know how hard it actually is.

The challenge is making the transition from those stumbling moments through to soaring mastery of the art. I outlined some of those challenges last week – check out the break-down.

This week – the No. 1 basic issue – sentence construction. With a twist. One that will, I guarantee, throw Word green grammar error underlines through your work – but it’ll be quite comprehensible to the punters. And it’s essential.

It’s the twist that makes people want to read it, you see.

Sentence construction is something hammered into most of us at high school, with the exception of me – my English teacher told my parents that no matter what I did, I would fail at it. Especially anything to do with English.

He never twigged that the actual problem was that he was boring and I usually switched off listening about 10 milliseconds into his classes.

When it comes to sentences you know the drill: the tenses have to match, the plurals have to match, and a sentence must have a subject and a predicate, usually in that order. For example, ‘I am laughing all the way to the bank’. The subject is ‘I’, everything else is the predicate, or the ‘doing part’ of the sentence.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

It also has to be a particular length, though exactly how long is a matter of opinion. When I was at school, that English teacher ruled that no sentence could be more than 2.5 lines, for instance. An institutional silliness which masked the point that, by classical rules, a sentence can often be quite long. It’s meant to encompass a single idea, but that idea may be quite complex – hence we have a plethora of different devices to separate the clauses: colons; semicolons, commas, and Oxford Commas among them. (Did you see what I did in that last sentence, anyone…anyone?)

The problem is that a sentence written strictly by the rules is a writing equivalent of one of those Czerny music exercises. Strictly correct, but absolutely boring. That’s where the twist comes in. Writing that runs to relentless rhythm lulls the reader into thinking they’re back in one of those stupidly dull English lessons I had to endure at high school.

Follow the rules, sure – readers will likely have trouble parsing meanings otherwise. But be creative about it. And the creative part – from the point of view of mechanical construction – is to give the sentence an interesting rhythm. My how-to tips for that are:

1. Vary your sentence length. Hemingway was supposed to have written only with short sentences. Wrong. He also wrote very, very long ones – inevitably with purpose.

2. Don’t just vary your sentence length. Also vary the length of the clauses and components within it.

3. Also vary word length, by syllables ideally.

4. Don’t ever go to the high school I went to.

Try it. Read some sentences aloud. Try again – keep doing that, and you’ll see what I mean.

Of course, that’s not the only way to make sentences interesting. They also have to have the correct content. More on that next week.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

Essential writing skills: breaking down the learning journey

One of the biggest challenges aspiring authors face is the learning journey. I’ve seen it often enough. Writing’s taught at school, everyone can write – right?

My Adler Gabrielle 25 - on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s.

My Adler Gabrielle 25 – on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s.

Of course it’s much harder than that. There is so much to deal with. Fiction writers have to master all the intricacies of structure, characterisation, dialogue, plot and expression. Non-fiction writers have to know how to convey and sustain an argument across the length of a book, and to reduce simultaneity of thought into a linear thread.

That’s without considering the issues of style and voice – the mechanics of writing. One of the outcomes is that authors often learn as they go. The written style at the end of the first book differs from the style at the beginning.

The only fix there is to turn around and start again, re-writing to consistent form. But another is to say ‘I want to write, so I’ll have to learn first’ – and treat the first five books as a learning exercise, never to be published and, ideally, thrown away.

I pretty much guarantee nobody does that, though – in part because most aspiring writers don’t know how challenging it actually is before they start. I didn’t. I long for my teenage days when I could pour stories out, without a care in the world about content other than to know I was writing. And also because the motivaton when starting out is often the emotional journey of writing, the book (‘my novel’) becomes the baby, not a product or an exercise.

Unfortunately the only real way to get good, and to be able to write fast, is to practise. But the learning journey can be broken down. First challenge, to my mind, is mastering the mechanics of getting the words down. Once that becomes automatic, it’s possible to focus on matters of content.

Tackling the nuts-and-bolts of actually writing first means you’ll be more likely to first find – and be able to fully control – the voice and tone of what you’re writing. That is a huge advantage when trying to present content, whether fiction or non-fiction.

Mastery of the words also means you can control the length – and won’t get hooked up on word-count as a goal. It isn’t.

In the next few weeks I’m going to run through some of the ways of mastering the mechanics of writing. I hope you’ll join me on the journey.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Shameless self promotion:

Available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Kobo http://store.kobobooks.com/en-US/ebook/bateman-illustrated-history-of-new-zealand

Buy the print edition: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

Inspiring culture – the meta-literature of Tolkien

It occurred to me the other day that one of my favourite authors – J R R Tolkien – has probably had more written about him than he actually wrote himself.

I had to prone to take this picture. 'Get up,' She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. 'People will think you're dead.'

I had to prone to take this picture in the Hobbit Artisan Market in 2012. ‘Get up,’ She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. ‘People will think you’re dead.’

Certainly that’s true if you consider the books Tolkien published in his lifetime. There were, after all, only two Middle Earth books plus a few other bits and pieces. But even if you add in the endless sequence of ‘first drafts’ churned out of the voluminous Tolkien papers by his son and one or two others since the elder Tolkien’s passing in 1973, the fact remains that the amount of stuff triggered by Tolkien is even larger.

I happened to be prowling the Tolkien shelves of my local bookstore the other day and spotted, apart from various editions of Tolkien’s own work, at least a complete shelf of analyses, of books-about-the-films, of books about the mythology behind Middle Earth, about the artwork – in all its flavours – and at least two send-ups. The Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings (a comic novel in its own right) and a more impenetrable spoof of The Hobbit written by someone else.

That’s apart from the plethora of Tolkien biographies – which, based on what I have in my own collection, range from the ‘definitive’ general biography by John Carpenter through to more specialist studies of Tolkien in the First World War. I also have a semi-biographical snapshot, published as a book, based on the observations of a fan who was so taken by drafts of the Silmarillion that he sought out, and visited, the elderly Professor in the early 1970s.

Not to mention the music. Tolkien himself worked with Donald Swann to set some of his Middle Earth songs to music. Since then his mythos has inspired everything from Bo Hansson’s album Music Inspired By The Lord Of The Rings (1969), through to Led Zeppelin’s Battle for Evermore, and more recently Nightwish numbers such as Elvenpath or Wishmaster. The latter, with some of the lyrics actually in Tolkien’s High Elvish, isn’t exactly subtle. And there are reasons why a lot of Norwegian rock is known, colloquially, as ‘heavy mithril’.

All of which, to me, underscores just what a massive influence Tolkien actually was. And, of course, still is. None of it, of course, was planned or intended; the whole thing grew, to use a Tolkienism, in the telling.

I suppose next we’ll find books discussing the books that discuss Tolkien. Meta-meta literature? Or maybe not.

Do you have any ‘meta Tolkien’ literature – or music – in your collection?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Essential writing skills: three reasons to plan

I posted a while back on the importance of planning for writers.  Today – more about why to do it.

My Adler Gabrielle 25 - on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s.

My Adler Gabrielle 25 – on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s.

Writers plan their material to control it – to keep it within length, to avoid being caught up in dead-ends, to make sure the structure is correct.

Yes, it’s fun to free-flow the ideas. And there can be advantages to having that freshness of material. The hard reality from the professional perspective is that writing that way is actually writing-for-personal-entertainment. A pastime. Writing as production – as in, coming up with the goods for a publisher, to time, is a different ball game. But it’s something writers have to learn how to do if they’re to enter the field.

Self-publishing doesn’t change that calculation – it makes it harder, because the onus is then thrown on the writer to also be the publisher. And one of the advantages of separating the two is that publishers give a different view to a book.

So why must we plan? Three reasons – all, really, variations on the same theme: control. Control of content. Control of scale. Control of time.

1.  Planning to broadest scale gives the writing its initial over-arching structure – the logline or thesis is a good starting point.

2. Writing has to be efficient – to have a dynamic to draw the reader forward. Writers working to deadline can’t afford dead ends, or to mis-structure the piece. Planning the structural detail is essential.

3. That rule of purpose applies down to sentence and word level. Every chapter, every sequence, every sentence – all must have a purpose, which is to push the story or content along. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be there. Ask why – why does character X do such-and-such. Is it to reveal more of their character? If you’re writing non-fiction, how does the sentence or paragraph contribute to the argument?

There’s a lot more to planning than this, of course. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

And now, some shameless self promotion: my history of New Zealand, now available as e-book.

Also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

 

Why we must re-conceptualise writing and book publishing

Last month, one of the three remaining indie booksellers in Wellington, New Zealand, closed down. Roy Parsons has been an icon for 60 years – combining books with music and a coffee shop. A winning combination. Until now.

My book Guns and Utu (Penguin 2011) spotted in a bookstore window, Lambton Quay, Wellington. Cool.

My book Guns and Utu (Penguin 2011) spotted in Parsons’ window, Lambton Quay, Wellington, back in happier days.

One reason for Parsons’ demise, reportedly, was the downturn in the CD market. But it’s indicative, too, of where books are going. In 2012, New Zealand domestic book sales contracted 7 percent. In 2013, it was 15. That’s a compound drop, in just two years, of just over 23 percent against 2011 figures.

Small wonder the international houses have been fleeing Auckland in droves.

The New Zealand experience isn’t unique. It’s been a ‘perfect storm’ worldwide, a combination of reduced discretionary spending on the back of the general financial crisis, coupled with the explosion of e-book readers, hand-held tablets and phones. Their rise wasn’t coincidental – readers didn’t have $500 to fork out annually on books, but they did have $99 for an e-reader and $3 each for titles.

For New Zealand the issue was complicated by the implosion, a few years back, of the old Whitcoulls chain. The chain was purchased and has since been reconstructed under new ownership, but for a while it looked as if New Zealand might lose a third of its book outlets. That provoked some risk-averse decision making in publishers’ editorial offices. The change was palpable.

On top of that has come the typical Kiwi rush to technology – a requited love-affair with online shopping. Book retailers here can’t compete with Amazon or The Book Depository – it’s an issue of volume coupled with the fact that overseas purchases don’t attract local sales tax.

One of the casualties has been the old publishing model with its sales-by-rep to bookstores. As a distribution and sales mechanism, that was marginal here at the best of times – the New Zealand market was always miniscule, pushing up the cover price on books.

Growth is going to have to pivot on the new principles of book publishing and selling – nimbleness, presence through multiple channels – electronic and print, and an ability to adapt quickly. It’s going to demand innovation, lateral thinking, and creativity.

As for me? I’ve been told history is dead as a genre in New Zealand – yet my history of railways sat for three months at No. 3 on the Whitcoulls best seller list last year and my Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand sold better than any of my other books have in years. Dramatically so.

At a time when some publishers are shutting their doors, I’m getting approaches from others wanting me to write for them. I have four titles coming up in the next ten months. Only one of them is history. The other two are on popular science. Which, I guess, won’t be too surprising to long-time readers of this blog. And there’s a biography.

As far as I am concerned the need for innovation has never been greater. We must not just re-invent; we must re-conceptualise. I think that’s not just true for me – it’s true for all writers.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014